The Girls by Emma Cline 

The Girls by Emma Cline 

Title: The Girls

Author: Emma Cline

Review by Catherine Keenan

Since my days of childhood reading I have often struggled to find a book that grips me with that same up-all-night insatiable hunger for turning the pages and witnessing how the story unfolds… that is until I read The Girls by Emma Cline.

Cline’s debut novel follows fourteen year-old Evie during the summer of 1969 as she falls from an unstable home life into the free love and acceptance of a nearby commune, where she is finally treated as the adult she feels she is. Fed up with a summer of boredom and loneliness and cast aside by her friends with nothing but empty days ahead of her, she fully embraces the new hippie lifestyle despite the undercurrent of tension which penetrates this seemingly perfect world. Before long Evie finds herself in the middle of a series of brutal murders.

The plot is based on real-life events that led to the murders of director Roman Polanski’s friends at the hands of the loyal ‘family’ that surrounded Charles Manson in the ‘Manson Murders’ of 1969. Evie’s Manson in The Girls is a charismatic egomaniac named Russell, who manipulates her and the other girls in his cult to perform his sinister or sexual bidding. However, the book is not so preoccupied with telling Russell’s story as eager to cast a spotlight on the girls who so loyally followed him and by whom Evie and the reader are totally enthralled.

Narrative voice 

While the writing is exceptional – there is an urgency that drives the narrative forwards even in moments lacking tension – the true merit of Cline’s skill as an author lies in her total ability to become a fourteen year-old girl within her writing. Reading The Girls felt akin to reading a young girl’s diary – the identity crisis, the longing to be taken seriously, the assumption of maturity and the curiosity surrounding sex. There is an intense vulnerability that pervades Evie’s narrative and it is one that reminds the reader that, despite acting like a woman and having the experiences of a woman, she is really only a girl swept up in a life more interesting than her own, blissfully ignorant of being a puppet whose strings are controlled by Russell. She acts as she feels she should act:

“So much of desire, at that age, was a willful act. Trying so hard to slur the rough, disappointing edges of boys into the shape of someone we could love. We spoke of our desperate need for them with rote and familiar words, like we were reading lines from a play. Later I would see this: how impersonal and grasping our love was, pinging around the universe, hoping for a host to give form to our wishes” 

Reflective

The story is told retrospectively by present-day Evie and the narrative switches intermittently between the two, offering a more reflective quality to the story. The comparison between both draws even more attention to the naivety of young Evie. However, the storyline of present-day Evie – staying at a friend’s beach house and encountering rebellious teenagers – seems redundant and almost jarring amidst the narrative of her youth. While I appreciate the contrast, I feel that this storyline either needed to be fleshed out further in order to support the weight of the main storyline or scrapped completely. However, while I do not feel that the present-day storyline is essential to the story, it does not detract from the poetic, almost lyrical writing or the plot of young Evie. Her naive narrative voice as she teeters on the brink between girlhood and womanhood is perhaps the strongest aspect of The Girls and while there is some dissonance between the past and present plot lines, it is a redeemable flaw.

Emma Cline’s debut novel takes the real life events of the ‘Manson Murders’ and tells them gracefully through the eyes of Evie, adding another facet to the already infamous incident. Using Evie as the narrator presents an allegory for the dangers of a young girl’s vulnerability and the ephemeral nature of youth, perfectly capturing the delicacy of innocence and the repercussions of its loss.

Review by Catherine Keenan

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